After all that I’ve gone through, this medal feels like vindication: Dipa Karmakar - Hindustan Times

After all that I’ve gone through, this medal feels like vindication: Dipa Karmakar

May 31, 2024 12:24 PM IST

For the Indian gymnast who won a historic Asian Championships medal, the end might be near. But even with injury-ravaged limbs, she remains the country’s best.

“This is do or die, sir”, an anxious Dipa Karmakar declared to her coach Bishweshwar Nandi ahead of the Asian Championships. Nandi responded to his pupil’s charged, emotional call with a reassuring word of advice – “Just do what we’ve been doing in training. That’s all.” He was certain that she just had to stick the landing well to finish with a medal.

New Delhi, May 26 (ANI): Gymnast Dipa Karmakar becomes the first Indian gymnast to win gold in Asian Gymnastics Championship on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(SAI Media - X)
New Delhi, May 26 (ANI): Gymnast Dipa Karmakar becomes the first Indian gymnast to win gold in Asian Gymnastics Championship on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(SAI Media - X)

He’s also somewhat certain of a more painful prospect – that Dipa’s run in the sport, with injury-ravaged limbs, is nearing its end.

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The 30 year-old Indian gymnast has already endured a lifetime’s worth of trials. She suffered career-disrupting ACL tears, underwent surgery twice, served a doping ban, and hasn’t qualified for the Olympics for the second straight time. It’s a lot to process.

Yet Dipa talks about overcoming dark times with her sunbeam of a laugh. She arrived in her hometown Agarwala from Tashkent with a slice of history – the first Indian gymnast to win gold at the Asian Championships. “It’s been such a long time since I had a moment like this… after all that I’ve gone through, this medal feels like vindication. Hard work always pays off, truth always wins,” Dipa told HT, her voice barely audible over the din of excited celebrations in the background.

It’s fair to say India cared little about gymnastics until the Tripura girl arrived on the 2016 Rio Olympics runway in her white shimmering leotard with blue flames. Dipa did a front handspring, double front somersault and three front flips as sports fans across the country gaped and forgot to blink. She finished fourth, a mammoth moment for Indian gymnastics.

It’s been eight years since and another Olympics is yet to happen for her. She listened to her body and switched the fearsome Produnova routine for a less punishing Tsukahara 720.

“Since it (Asian Championships) was an Olympic qualification event, everyone really was giving it all they had. I really tried my best. I’m heartbroken that I couldn’t qualify for the Olympics. But the medal feels good.” History and heartbreak melded into one.

Emma Mulabuyo from Philippines won the sole Paris quota on offer in her event at the Asian Championships.

In the months that she was banished from competition – following sanctions in early 2021 after her out-of-competition dope sample returned positive for Higenamine, a prohibited substance under the WADA code – Dipa continued training. “I didn’t miss a day,” Dipa said. “I knew I had done no wrong and have no idea how the substance entered my body. God and my coach kept me going.”

Nandi – who's been Dipa's coach, mentor, confidante and father-figure rolled into one – describes the Asian women’s vault medal as a product of ‘jed’ (obstinate/stubborn in Bengali).

“We faced a lot of unfair criticism these past few years. We suffered quietly and had a jed to answer everyone with a medal. We managed to do that,” he said. “We’ve not had great luck in World Cups. We travelled for a few competitions on our own money and with GoSports Foundation’s help. We missed two Olympic qualifying events. For one of them (World Cup in Cottbus, Germany), Dipa’s entry wasn’t sent. Thankfully with SAI’s support we could compete in the Asian Championships.”

No Indian gymnast has qualified for the Paris Olympics. Dipa often lights up at the thought of sneaking into the Paris Games by some stroke of divine intervention, Nandi offered. Dipa is placed fourth (vault) in the Olympic qualification World Cup ranking list. Only the two-highest ranked athletes are awarded quotas. For her to get in, the top two would have to withdraw, which doesn’t seem like the most reasonable probability.

"It will obviously be her decision whether she wants to continue or quit. Her knee meniscus is not in great shape. We both have it at the back of our minds every time she’s training or competing. The fear of injury is always present. We have been doing strength routines but 100 per cent recovery is perhaps not possible. Also, she’s 30 now so she has marriage to think about… gymnastics isn’t her whole life.”

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